ANZAC Day Address
Bulimba Memorial Park, Brisbane
One hundred years ago, the Federal Member for Brisbane, William Finlayson, told the House of Representatives:
25 April 2013
“It is reasonable to say that as the years go on the danger of war is not increasing. The wisdom, intelligence and reasonableness of the nations are coming to our aid, and there is less danger of war today than there was ten years ago. The tendency in the civilised countries of the world is stronger than ever it was before towards peace.”
Less than a year later, the young men of Queensland were enlisting in the Second and Fifth Light Horse Regiments together with the Ninth and Fifteenth Infantry Battalions in the “war to end all wars”.
In fact, it was they who participated in the great allied counter-offensive of August 1918 which became the final turning point of the war against Germany – a day that German Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff described as “the black day of the German army in this war”.
War is not just a thing of Kings and Emperors, of Presidents and Prime Ministers, of generals and admirals.
War, in all its horror, is a very local thing as well.
Here in our local community we sent 205 of our best local lads to Gallipoli. Many never came home. Many of those who did were scarred for life. The great trees behind me today were planted in their honour.
The sobering thing is that a hundred years ago William Finlayson, the Member for Brisbane, a member of the Fisher Labor Government, was not alone in his views that war was virtually impossible.
In an extraordinary book published only last year entitled, “The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914”, Christopher Clark documents how much of the European elite of the time considered the possibility of war as remote, arguing that in their age of unprecedented economic integration, it simply made no sense taking up arms against one another.
Despite, or perhaps even because of, this underlying mindset, Europe instead managed to lurch from crisis to crisis before war finally seemed no longer impossible but, in fact, inevitable by the time they reached the summer of 1914.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
And for Australia, a country of barely five million people, nearly 400,000 wore the uniform, 152,000 were wounded and 62,000 lay dead on foreign soil where they remain to this day.
And among them, so many of our local lads too.
It is difficult to picture these numbers in our mind’s eye. But next time you’re at Lang Park, think of that stadium full to the brim and then imagine each of those attending as wearing the khaki uniform of Australia, sitting as silent sentinels of the “war to end all wars”.
So what would these ANZACs say to us gathered here today, nearly a hundred years later?
It is of course presumptuous for any of us to speak for the dead, but from their dispatches, their diaries and their letters home, we can see certain gleanings.
The first is this: eternal vigilance.
Like William Finlayson a hundred years ago, I wish we could all simply wave away the prospect of war in the future.
But to do so would be the height of national irresponsibility.
In fact, the first responsibility of the Commonwealth, given where we found ourselves both in 1914 and in 1939, is to have made full preparations for our proper national defence.
And this means proper planning and proper resources for the future needs of the men and women who proudly wear the uniform of Australia today.
The lesson of history is that we know not the day, nor the hour.
I believe the second message from the heroes of ANZAC would be for us then to do everything within our diplomacy to avoid the calamity of war.
There is nothing determinist about human history.
We choose our future. And the nations of the world choose their individual futures as well. And it is their leaders who choose whether our futures are governed by cooperation or conflict, by war or by peace.
The truth is Australia today has its being in a highly uncertain part of the world.
Our region remains riven with crises and the rumours of wars, great and small.
Therefore, our nation has the highest responsibility to continue to do everything within the powers of its diplomacy – to sow the seeds of peace; to help define other pathways through the inevitable international disagreements which from time to time arise; and to encourage our friends, partners and allies to walk in those pathways with us.
The searing letters home from our warriors past describing the horrors of the battlefield demand that we do this.
The formal missives from field commanders informing families that they had lost one son, two sons and sometimes three in the same engagement demands that we do this.
And then, there are the photographs.
We are all familiar with photographs of Australians playing the larrikin – swimming on the beaches at Gallipoli; climbing the great pyramids of Egypt; enjoying a general “knees up” with the local French fillies when on leave from the Front.
But there are other photographs as well, such as those captured in Ross Coulthart’s recent labour of love, “The Lost Diggers”, and the haunted face of one George Gordon Gilbert – 18 years old at best, his photo taken before he was blown to pieces at the Battle of Amiens.
No human being can look at his photo without being moved – and moved to action to help stop other young boys such as him being carved to pieces in the future.
War is the ultimate human horror.
Let us hope that this is not for every generation to discover afresh, before the memories of previous horrors are fully erased.
Instead, let us harness our energies and our talents to turn swords into ploughshares.
If there is another message from those whose ghostly souls are among us today, perhaps it is simply this: that we Australians are at our best when we are serving the needs of others rather than just grafting for ourselves.
Amidst our national political rancour, we often lose sight of this most simple but eloquent of truths.
Many of our divisions are manufactured as some bizarre form of public entertainment – as politicians “strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and are heard no more”.
Whereas the overwhelming yearning of our people is for us to come together on the essential things for our nation’s future, to work together on the things that matter, just as we would encourage the nations of the world to work together for our common human purpose.
Otherwise the disease of division will ultimately rend us all apart.
As others have said before me: “In things essential, unity; and in things non-essential, diversity”. And in all things, service to our families and communities.
Otherwise, if we fail to keep the flame of hope alive for our nation’s future, then much of their sacrifice will have been in vain.
Whatever our callings in life may be, wherever our life or work may take us, ANZAC Day also calls on us to be their worthy successors in building the Australian nation – together.
So on this eve of the centenary of the “war to end all wars”, let us all ponder these things afresh.
Vigilance in our defence.
Fully engaged in the diplomacy of peace in a region which threatens many wars.
And together building the future for this great nation of ours, Australia.